Wildness across the sea

19 April 2017

The roll call of England’s spring blooming wild flowers seems fixed: snowdrops, some primroses if you’re lucky, then bluebells.  Celandines are fairly easy to spot too, and perhaps the odd wood anemone, before we’re in to the rampaging greens and whites of summer verges.  Daffodils everywhere, of course, but rarely the delicate, wild species plants of years gone by.

A recent trip to France put this limited palette to shame.  Perhaps because one looks more when somewhere new, or perhaps there really is a greater variety of wildflowers across the Channel.  In any case, this Spring there seemed to be a particularly loud and copious array of plants laid about the paths and fields of northern France.  Not only a beautiful sight and smell, these little sparks of colour teeming all about also represent one of the purest sources of inspiration for many, landscape designers included.  How individual plants cluster together, species fading in to and out of each other’s territories, colours clashing in the freshest of ways.  Even a quick amble gives sight of tens of different varieties some brazen in the sunlight, others tucked away behind banks and tree roots.  

A swathe of Ranunculus ficaria (Lesser Celandine) provide a gaudy backdrop for bright spikes of the earliest of wild orchids, Orchis mascala (Early Purple Orchid).  Purple and yellow not the easiest colour combination to pull off but here it works without question.  One shady track held Anemone nemorosa (Wood anemone), Polygonatum x hybridum (Soloman’s seal) and just-budding Anthriscus sylvestris (Cow Parsley) all within a wheelbarrow sized patch, and all these exact species used in a recently completed project in the Cotswolds.  Euphorbia amygdaloides (Wood Spurge), whose cultivated cousins we favour in our planting palettes for their structure and tonal greens, was dotted in a wooded boundary, as was a blanket of Stellaria holostea (Greater Stitchwort) less commonly used in domestic gardens.  It’s not only the small-scale collaborations of wild flowers that impress, one species can decide to dominate a vast area, such as Trifolium incarnatum (Crimson clover) which covers cow-filled fields in some low alpine parts, an early nod to the poppy-filled fields of summer.  Various delicate blues and pale purples lie sprinkled along the roadside, Geranium robertianum (Herb Robert), Myosotis scorpioides (Forget-me-not) and Brunnera macrophylla (Siberian Bugloss) amongst them.  One of our favourites, Primula veris (Cowslip), was found even on motorway verges, the softest of yellows borne on silvery stalks, and incomparably beautiful next to its gaudier cultivated Primula relations.

Such combinations of the subtly beautiful wild varieties of well-known garden plants capture the imagination in a way that not even the most precise of planned borders can.  How plants creep in to a patch of forgotten land, or battle on when nibbled or mown every year can make one rethink how we combine plants, where we plant and how.  If it works in nature, chances are it will work when mimicked in our gardens.  The trick is not to mess too much with the original.

- Elizabeth Tyler 

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